ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Less than two weeks before this country's crucial Feb. 18 elections, the man who supplanted slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan's most widely known politician has left the country.
It's a peculiar absence in the middle of a political campaign, but one that reflects a growing belief that the coming election likely will be marked by widespread vote-rigging and fraud.
Nawaz Sharif, a two-time former prime minister, went to the United Arab Emirates this week, apparently to be with his wife as she underwent surgery in Dubai.
The chairman of Sharif's political party, Raja Zafar-ul-Haq, played down the importance of any campaign at this point.
"There will be vast rigging," Zafar-ul-Haq said. "I think there will be chaos, a serious public reaction afterward."
In Dubai, Sharif told reporters that he expects the vote to be "a farce" and holds no hope for a free and fair vote.
Sharif, 58, has the highest stature of any politician in Pakistan after the assassination in late December of Bhutto, with whom he alternated terms as prime minister during much of the 1990s.
He's a bitter adversary of President Pervez Musharraf, who toppled him from power eight years ago and later threw him in jail. U.S. officials have cited Musharraf repeatedly in recent months as "indispensable" in the global fight against Islamic terrorism.
Analysts say Sharif expects post-election tumult to force Musharraf from power and a period of political confusion to ensue.
"He's not banking on this election," said Zahid Hussain, a journalist and author of Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam.
"He's trying to create conditions for Musharraf to leave power. That's his main objective. He feels another election will take place soon, maybe within six months or a year's time," Hussain said.
Sharif's and Musharraf's distaste for each other dates to Sharif's last period as prime minister, which lasted from Feb. 17, 1997, until Oct. 12, 1999, when he was overthrown.
Sharif had tried to avert the coup by blocking an airliner carrying Musharraf, then the army commander, from landing at Karachi airport on its return from Sri Lanka.
But the airliner landed, and Musharraf and his army followers succeeded in toppling Sharif, immediately throwing him in jail.
Courts handed Sharif a life sentence for conspiracy to hijack an airliner. He later was allowed to flee with his family to exile in Saudi Arabia.
The court barred him from politics for a decade.
Sharif's supporters say the legal bar will be overturned in court because Sharif is the only person convicted of taking part in the conspiracy.
"For a conspiracy, you can't just have one person. It's a legal joke," said Zafar-ul-Haq.
In one of the few recent interviews he has given during the campaign, Sharif told Dawn Television this week that Musharraf's political party, the PML-Q League, will win almost no support at the polls.
"There's not one iota of doubt in my mind that Musharraf will not win the election," Sharif said.
Sharif's lowballing of the Q League's chances in the election might be because Bhutto's People's Party might reap a large sympathy vote and his own Pakistan Muslim League party might not do so well, some observers say.
Like other politicians, Sharif is limiting campaign activity out of fear that he might be a target of political violence or terrorism.